Nasa launches mission to find its stolen moon rocks


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The Independent Online

The American space agency, Nasa, is not as busy as it once was sending astronauts into orbit, so it can now deal with other business – like tracing samples of moon rock it handed out over the years that have gone missing.

A new internal report depicts an agency that has generously distributed extra-terrestrial flotsam, including moon rock, to government leaders and scientific institutions promising to use them for research. But it has been peculiarly lax about monitoring the whereabouts of the moon rock and ensuring the bits on loan were returned.

According to the report 517 moon rocks and so-called "astromaterial" samples loaned out by the agency between 1970 – when Apollo missions began to collect them – and 2010 have gone missing or have been stolen.

The job of retrieval is partly being undertaken by Joseph R. Gutheinz Jr., a Texas lawyer. He used to be an undercover Nasa agent intercepting attempts by people trying to sell moon rock they had nefariously acquired on the open market for millions. Now he tries to find lost rocks wherever he can find them, which is as likely to be in a shoebox as in a vault.

"If someone hands a governor a moon rock, and he keeps it or loses it, if you can't protect something like that, maybe they're not that vigilant," Mr Gutheinz, known as "Moon Rock Hunter", told the New York Times. In 1998, he blocked the attempted sale of a nugget of lunar rock in Miami by a man who had acquired it in Honduras. The man tried to sell it to Mr Gutheinz, unaware of his real identify, for $5m (£3.2m).

Last year Nasa said it was investigating a California grandmother caught trying to sell lunar rocks she said were given to her by her late husband.

The new report, by Johnson Space Center's Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office, does not discuss the many samples given to leaders and figures like state governors and which seem to have gone on a walkabout.